The annual Pingxi Lantern Festival has always been the highlight of Lunar New Year’s activities in New Taipei City. It was even praised by CNN and National Geographic magazine as one of the “must-go” festivals in the world, attracting a large amount of travelers from around the world to come join the festive tradition.
However, in the eyes of local environmental groups, the festival is more than just an icon of Taiwanese culture. Environmentalists are worried that sky lanterns are creating too much garbage and damage to the environment, as many of the lanterns launched end up littering the countryside. In addition, these newly designed lanterns often do not decompose naturally on the ground, placing great burdens on the environment.
The Environmental Quality Protection Foundation (EQPF) recently noted that traditional lanterns with thin bamboo stick frames and cotton paper lampshades are made from decomposable materials that can be burnt completely before falling to the ground. However, their supply cannot keep up with the demand as these lanterns are getting increasingly popular.
In order to speed up manufacturing process without compromising on quality, local lantern manufacturers have resorted to unsustainable materials for fabrication – by using metal wires to replace bamboo sticks, and painted paper in lieu of cotton paper. Coupled with the fact that bigger lanterns are gradually in demand, more and more of them fall back to the ground and become litter. What’s worse is that the lighted paper lanterns could also cause serious fire as some of them land on roofs or trees while still burning.
The EQPF cited that cultural festivals as such will only sustain when it is aligned with environmental values. As an important part of Taiwanese cultural tradition, Pingxi Lantern Festival should lead the practice of environmental sustainability. The government should work with local businesses to encourage the selling of environmentally-friendly lanterns, striking a balance between tourism and environmental protection.
The EQPF also suggested measures to reduce the environmental impact of releasing sky lanterns, such as encouraging people to reduce waste by sharing lanterns, as well as recycling them.
More importantly, the foundation said there should be a slightly different mindset in terms of practicing tradition. The New Taipei City Sustainable Development Association for Pingxi Lanterns organized by local civic groups sets a good example as it regulates local business the material of the lanterns, the operating instructions, and SOP for cleaning up the area afterwards. In addition, the foundation suggested the authorities to enhance communication with people on environmental values.
Traditional customs do not necessarily exist at the expense of environmental sustainability. As our social environment quickly changes, certain adjustments should be made in order to keep up the pace. For example, more and more people stop practicing the tradition of burning incense and joss paper, an activity that creates air pollutants and health concerns.